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Pastimes >

word from Wormingford

Never ask how the latest work is coming on, advises Ronald Blythe


JONATHAN and his vast machine make their presence known as they return the overgrown track to its medieval highway, the one down which the brass knights in the church would have galloped. The noise is fearful: a grinding of boughs, a chewing of bracken, a screaming of greenery.

The machine leaves a piecrust edge to the lane. Jonathan comes in for his dues.

“I must pay you.”

“Yes, you must pay me.”

He has a fringe of Tudor-red hair and is also large. But how marvellous to be accessible to organists and churchwardens once more. How nice to saunter, instead of battle my way, to the top. The corn can be seen waving beyond lawn-like banks, the stream through the oaks. There is a sweet smell of crushed plants.

Peter-Paul Nash the composer then arrives, that silent walker who appears unannounced with a haversack of music on his back. Composers refer to whatever they are composing — symphony, sonata — as “a piece”. It is etiquette not to enquire after the piece’s progress. So he sits down and we have lunch on the step: Cheddar cheese, Ryvita, and Granny Smith apples. The white cat, purring only a little less proportionately noisy than Jonathan’s Moloch, joins us.

And thus the summer day passes. Left on my own towards evening, I weed. Farm gardens are really nettle and horsetail forests through which roses and irises have to find their way. I pull up about a million weeds, listening to the night-song of the birds, and making up a sermon about Barnabas the Apostle en route, as it were.

Georgian parsons had sermon-walks where they could wander and think what to say for two hours each Sunday. Poor, poor labouring folk, having to listen to this after weeding the cornfields by hand. I shall talk of Barnabas the consoler for ten minutes. But, I tell him, I do love you, Joses from Cyprus, with your soothing nickname. And we will assure him:

Distant lands with one acclaim
Tell the honour of your name.

My new book buzzes in my head all through the weeding, all through Jonathan’s mighty crunching, and partly through lunch. Peter-Paul will under no circumstance ask me, “How is the new book going?” Its pregnancy is apparent, but private.

Long ago, I did have a friend who would follow me up hill and down dale, telling me the plot of his new novel, and “What did I think?” and it was very dreadful. Hush, let the unborn story make its way without a spoken word.

A favourite joke of mine — I may be repeating it — is of Dumas rushing from his study to tell his wife, “I have finished The Count of Monte Cristo!” And her saying, “But dinner won’t be ready for another hour.” So he went back to his desk and began The Black Tulip.

I had a teacher who would create uproar in class with such jokes and who would then shout, “Settle down! Settle down!” Which was unreasonable.

The dentist tells me tales about his son as the stopping hardens. He is good at this. He tells me about Durham University, and the sharp bend in the River Wear, and I would like to tell him about standing by Cuthbert’s tomb with my month-old godson in my arms, but I am gagged. How kind he is, giving me such a nice smile at my age. Think of the merciless teeth of Jonathan’s hedger!

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